Patriotism needs more active, more suspicious citizenship

Jul 20, 2021

“Whose side are you on?” prime minister Tony Abbott once publicly asked the ABC when he felt that it was not sufficiently representing Australian propaganda, not to mention his own point of view, in some dispute with other nations.

He was not asking me, but had he been, I might not have spoken sententiously of the duty of the journalist to the truth, rather than to one side or another of an international conflict. I might have simply said that I hadn’t made my mind up yet, but I was pretty certain I was not on his [Abbott’s] side. I had seen by then enough of Abbott’s chronic misjudgements, poor instincts and his tendency to play defence and foreign affairs policy primarily for party partisan purposes, rather than in pursuit of Australia’s general national interests.

Abbott also set most of the Australian precedents for appearing in front of an ever-increasing number of Australian flags, as well as alongside a host of officials, generals, admirals and ASIO chiefs, being effectively verballed simply by virtue of being conscripted into the photoshoot.

Abbott’s call on the ABC, and on other journalists, to be patriotic in matters of conflict with other nations might have been said to follow a general example of Westminster or democratic government, or even Cabinet systems. In this, those with a voice were free to argue any point of view as hard as they wanted. But when the decision was made, particularly on an international matter, the loyal opposition would be loyal. Generally, it would agree broadly with the decision anyway, even if it had clear points of difference about how it should be carried into effect. The Americans tended to add to this a tradition of never publicly criticising their country’s foreign policy while travelling abroad.

Most Australians will take great pleasure when Australian athletes win medals at the Olympics over the next few weeks, and no doubt some hearts will swell when they hear the national anthem before an international game. A simple love of country is fairly ingrained in any citizen of almost any country. But dare we call it patriotism? And dare we pass judgement on the patriotism of others? I am inspired to ask this by an article I have recently read in an American magazine which seems to apply here as well.

The article responds to a father asking why his kids seem to “hate America”. They were not keen on the flag worship that seems to be a feature of 4 July and were embarrassed about their father’s wearing of the red, white and blue. “When did loving my country become a bad thing?” he asked.

The article comments that Gen-Zeds had the lowest rates of self-identified patriotism among all demographics, a title once held by the millennials. For many, but not all older Americans, the American flag represented the values to which they had been taught to pledge allegiance: liberty and justice for all. It represented battles fought against the Nazis and kamikaze bombers, as well as the ‘American dream’ ideal in which anyone could become who they wished, with cherished rights such as freedom of speech.

Even if most Australians are not as ostentatious in their flag worship and tend to snicker at American heart-holding, or Australian imitations of it, we have many similar rituals, including martial ones such as Anzac Day, involving the same sorts of ideas of ourselves, of Australia, and about the thing that Scott Morrison has taken to calling “sovereignty”.

But what if a younger generation does not see such things in clear-cut terms?

They live in an age in which history and notions of love of country do not come only from family and local schools. They may not be very engaged in politics, but they are often passionate about issues, particularly moral ones, such as climate change and the environment, women’s safety, indigenous rights, and same-sex marriage, that politicians too glibly consider second-tier matters.  They have a feel for the personality and honesty of the players.

They have access to a much fuller picture of history as well as of current affairs. And it is a history that is no longer, as it were, so black and white. Australia is no longer a monocultural ghetto, but a nation that has, at least in the past, welcomed immigrants, including people of different races, creeds and backgrounds. We have gone some distance, if only a small one, in recognising and incorporating indigenous Australians in our image of ourselves.

With or without black-armband theory, younger Australians are well aware that the nation’s progress since European settlement has not been one of unambiguous progress or national self-improvement. It has involved massacre, dispossession and impoverishment of the original inhabitants. It has involved active discrimination against non-Europeans, against women, gay and transgender people.

The Australian flag has flown over our overseas concentration camps where people fleeing from war and arriving on our shores by boat were deliberately treated with great cruelty so as to discourage others from exercising their acknowledged right to seek refuge here. If Australians fought bravely in wars and gave good service in peacekeeping operations, the respect of many Australians for our defence forces has been hurt by unpopular and unsuccessful deployments, and by credible allegations of serious and systematic war crimes.

There is, naturally, a “my country right or wrong” movement seeking to sweep such matters under the carpet, but the allegations won’t go away and, like our increasingly mean-minded and selfish international diplomacy, represent a stain on our international reputation.

In Australia as much as the US, right-wing nut-jobs are the biggest and most dangerous pretend-patriots of all.

After traversing similar matters in the US, the article continues that:

“[the gen-X’ers] have also come of age in a time when Trumpism implicitly linked the flag with a peculiar brand of conservatism that is overtly nativist, anti-immigrant, biased towards Christianity over other faiths, and vocally anti-transgender. Flag-waving and flag-wearing have become associated with rallies where speeches and merchandise capitalise on sexism, homophobia and racism – all of which are excused as being funny. (Can’t you take a joke?’ might as well be the new anthem.) In this same time Gen Z has witnessed the increase in hate crimes and seen how often the perpetrators espouse nationalist sentiment.

“So maybe your kids don’t want to fly the flag because to them it means liberty and justice for only some, or they relate it to unjust war, or they associate it with people whose values they find abhorrent. In that case, it’s as natural for them to reject the flag as it is for you to embrace it”.

Such a rejection of flags, slogans, and largely empty words and meaningless songs, does not mean younger folk reject the love of country. It can equally imply a more active and critical citizenship, with new and better values for the future. A citizenship that is more inclusive and embracing of the full Australian community, more kind to each other, more intolerant of injustice. Believers in an ideal society are less suspicious of the new, the alien, and the stranger, less militantly anti-intellectual, and more willing to work with each other, our neighbours and the international community to address common problems, not least climate change. It is not without significance that some of the most boorish and determined wearers of Australian flags — including the ones most given to impugning the patriotism of others – are non-believers or laggards on doing anything to address climate change and the already pressing environmental problems it is causing.

There is a growing chasm in American society between Republicans and Democrats, in which a significant proportion of the community rejects the clear result of the last presidential election. That chasm is not only about values: it has a racial basis. Adherents of the two parties scarcely communicate with each other, and many talk of an effective civil war, albeit, this time, with Republicans as the champions of white privilege.

 In Australia, perhaps, the divide is not so great or (yet) so ominous. But there is the same process of disintegration of old and established institutions of government and society, and a bigger blight of money interests, lobbies and cronies of government at the expense of public involvement in the exercise of power.  Add diminished demand for integrity, honesty and fairness in the way public power is exercised, a much-reduced role for transparency and public accountability, and a prime minister, and ministers, who flaunt their disregard for process and their willingness to lie and mislead. This has serious implications for future orderly transfers of power, for respect for politics and public life, and for that authority and legitimacy, as well as public consent,  which is critical for the survival of the state.

When Australians think of patriotism, our ideas are more about war and national history than the Americans’ constant need to reassure themselves that their faltering republic is the greatest country on earth. With senior bureaucrats, spy chiefs and publicly funded agencies lobbying receptive ministers for greater confrontation with China, it is worth reflecting on whether our politicians have the cred, or the moral authority, to command the public to follow. We have a national pretence that national security is beyond politics and that partisan politicians, in plotting our international course, shed all partisan considerations, wearing only their “national” hat.  On national security, our loyal opposition is too scared to speak at all. Will ordinary voters, particularly the younger ones, be fooled by their complicity, or inclined to forgive their cowardice?

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